Slices of ham sit on a black plate in front of a black background

Understanding Ham

Ham is a bit of a chameleon among proteins: it can be shaved into lacy, melt-in-your-mouth ribbons to serve on a charcuterie board, carved into robust slices for sandwiches or salads, or showcased as a dramatic centerpiece for holiday tables.

As versatile as — dare I say — chicken, ham can function as the main event or a garnish, plays nicely with a wide variety of other components and flavors, and can be found as an ingredient in everything from soup to dessert. (Yes, really!)

As a cheese professional, it must also be said that ham and cheese is basically as iconic a matchup as peanut butter and jelly. For Americans, Easter tends to be ham’s main stage, so as the holiday approaches, here we spend a moment getting to know the ins and outs of ham.

What is Ham?

There are many varieties of ham the world over — several of which are outlined below — but the primary thing that defines it is that ham is a cured meat made from a pork leg. What breed of pig (and in some cases the diet of the pig), the style of curing, the addition of flavor or not, whether the ham is smoked or not and how it is typically served all help to delineate different varieties of ham. The production of ham is believed to date back to as far as the 6th Century BC by the Etruscans around the area that is modern-day Tuscany.

Related:Charcuterie 101

There are a couple of exceptions to the “cured pork leg” definition above, although most hams — and certainly the most famous ones — adhere to those parameters. Processed deli-style ham is typically made by mechanical formation, which may contain leg meat but is decidedly different from the whole limb preparation that defines world-class hams.

Additionally, the term “ham” is not legally exclusive to pork. Although it’s mostly associated with pork-based products, “beef ham” refers to the cured leg of a cow or bull, and most people are also familiar with turkey or chicken-based hams, which are mechanically-processed, typically lower fat alternatives that are shaped and flavored to mimic pork ham.


How is Ham Made?

Ham is a form of charcuterie, a term that translates to “cooked flesh.” Hams are cured, a process that utilizes salt to leech moisture out of the meat, and acts as a means of preservation. Hams may be cured via a dry method, where salt, and often nitrates, are applied as a rub.

Wet curing (or brining), is also commonly used, where pork legs enjoy a saltwater bath on their journey to becoming hams, sometimes along with other components such as sugar and/or spices that flavor the meat during the process. The goal of curing, whether the dry or brine method is used, is the evaporation of water in order to create an environment that is inhospitable to bacteria, which is key to the preservation process. Curing is also typically followed by a period of air-drying, and in some cases, cooking.

Smoking is a process that also helps dry out the meat for preservation purposes, and may be applied to various hams in addition to the curing process, lending a distinct, smoky flavor to the product.

Famous Hams to Know

While ham is common wherever pork is eaten, several styles of ham have protected geographical designations, based on unique processes that impart distinctive, regional characteristics to the various hams. Here are several you should know:

Smithfield Ham: Dating back to revolutionary times, Smithfield Ham is America’s only protected style of ham, a dry-cured and smoked ham that must be processed in Smithfield, Virginia. (Smithfield Hams used to stipulate that hogs were peanut-fed, but that is no longer a requirement.) Typical to what you might see in a Christmas or Easter spread, Smithfield Hams are considered country-style, usually presented in a large format, which may be glazed to finish, and served as thick slices or ham steaks. (Side of au gratin potatoes optional, but even as a picky childhood eater this was an especially winning combo for me.)

Jamón Ibérico: Arguably the most notorious and most expensive ham worldwide, the particular breed of hogs used for Spain’s Jamón Ibérico are famously fed on acorns, which contributes to the ham’s rich, nutty taste. Hams are dry cured for at least 12 months, and sometimes up to four years. Jamón Ibérico generally has a higher fat content than other types of ham, and is typically served in extremely thin shaves.

Related:Jamón Ibérico

Prosciutto: While Jamón Ibérico may be more infamous, Italy’s prosciutto may be the most common component on a charcuterie plate. There are two types of name-protected prosciutto in Italy: Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. The defining characteristic of both of these types of prosciutto is that no nitrates are used in the curing process in addition to salt. This is increasingly rare, and results in a slighter sweeter flavor compared to other types of thinly-sliced ham.

Jambon de Bayonne: Named for the port city where the ham was shipped, rather than where it is necessarily processed, Bayonne ham is France’s alternative to prosciutto. Jambon de Bayonne utilizes a specific breed of hogs, and is one of the only hams worldwide that stipulates the source of the salt used to cure the hams, ancient sea salts collected from Salies-de-Bearn. Bayonne hams are often processed with the inclusion of espelette, a particular chili pepper that is also indigenous to the Basque region of France. Finally of note, Jambon de Bayonne boasts one of the world’s oldest food festivals, the annual Faure au Jambon de Bayonne, which dates back to 1462.

Chinese Ham: If you’re lucky to live near a Chinatown, or have access to an Asian grocer in your area, seek out Chinese hams, consisting of both smoked and unsmoked varieties, several of which have protected status: Anfu ham, Jinhua ham, Rugao ham and Xuanwei ham. China is believed to be one of the oldest producers of cured pork, and the various hams made in China have a multitude of applications in Chinese cuisine, including as the basis for a broth or stock.

Black Forest Ham: Germany is famous for one of the most uniquely seasoned forms of ham. Black Forest Ham, or Schwarzwälder Schinken, is a dry-cured ham that is also seasoned with garlic, coriander, pepper and juniper berries, a common ingredient in Germanic cuisine.

Add new comment